Gayle Letherby, is Hon Prof at Plymouth University, and Visiting Prof at the University of Greenwich.
Throughout my sociological career – beginning with my first solo-researched study as a final year undergraduate in the late 1980s – I have reflected on the significance of the auto/biographical in the work I do. I was aware then, as I am now, of the power and significance of auto/biographical within and for the discipline thus:
As feminist [and other] researchers researching women’s [and men’s and children’s] lives, we take their autobiographies and become their biographers, whilst recognizing that the autobiographies that we are given are influenced by the research relationship. In other words respondents have their own views of what the researcher might like to hear. Moreover we draw on our own experiences to help us understand those of our respondents. Thus their lives are filtered through us and the filtered stories of our lives are present (whether we admit it or not) in our written accounts (Cotterill and Letherby 1993: 74).
I have been lucky that my career has taken place at a time where there has been a space for the ‘auto/biographical I’ (Stanley 1993) and much of my work (but not all) on reproductive and non/parental identity, on working and learning in higher education, on travel and transport mobility has been auto/biographical. I feel privileged to have been able to spend so much paid time on issues that are so important to me and too others especially in relation to reproduction, reproductive identity and the experience and non/parenthood (I have undertaken research on (amongst other issues) miscarriage and other perinatal loss; infertility and involuntary childlessness; teenage pregnancy and young parenthood and pregnancies complication by long-term health conditions). I feel a responsibility too, both in terms of ‘fair representation’ of my respondents’ experiences and it terms of research accountability, making it clear what I did, how I came to the conclusions I have.
Recently I have also become interested in creative approaches to data collection and presentation, not least with reference to the use of memoir and fiction in scholarly – in my case sociological – writings. With reference to all of these genres I accept that ‘. . . story-telling is not an innocent activity. What is remembered is always selected: the reason a story is told relates specifically to the current context and the current audience’ (Smart 2007: 83).
It was a personal loss – a miscarriage at 16 weeks gestation – that brought me to sociology and I believe that sociology has affected the way that I do grief (Letherby 2015). It is increasingly acknowledged by grief counsellors, therapists and scholars concerned with death and bereavement that there is a place for creativity within bereavement. The fruits of such activity can be useful not only for the person who produces the piece(s) but also for those who read, watch and view the work. We know, for example, that music and fiction enables listeners and readers to experience emotions — their own and those of others — and understand them in relation to the contexts in which the emotions arise (similar can be said about music, art and drama). As William Tierney (1998: 313) suggests fictional accounts can portray a situation more clearly that standard forms of representation arguing that: ‘we rearrange facts, events and identities in order to draw the reader into the story in a way that enables a deeper understanding of individuals, organizations, or the events themselves’.
My father Ron died when I was 20 years old, as previously noted I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid-twenties and was divorced from my first husband in my early thirties. My relationship with my second husband John was happy but hard work given his many years of illness. When he died eight years ago this month John was estranged from his two sons who remain estranged (their choice) from me, even though John had sole custody and they lived with and were cared for by the two of us during their teenage years and into early adulthood. Six years ago the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these experiences, my mum Dorothy, died. As such my adult life has been peppered with death and loss.
It was following John’s death that I first began to write ‘differently’ and these various ways of expressing myself became even more appealing to me after my mum died. Since then I have including fictional pieces (sometimes based on my academic research, sometimes with reference to my own experience, sometimes prompted by issues that distress and/or anger me) and memoir in various academic pieces. I have also published similar writings in non-academic outlets including a personal blog https://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/ and an online writing group https://www.abctales.com/user/gletherby. This story https://www.abctales.com/story/gletherby/away-match is relevant to my research interests and academic writings and in this short piece of memoir I reflect on issues of loss, love and legacy https://www.abctales.com/story/gletherby/older-dad.
More recently still following political surprise and upheaval at home and abroad I have begun also to write auto/biographical opinion pieces; what I have come to think of as an extension – beyond research and scholarly writing – of my responsibility as a ‘public sociologist’ (Buroway 2005). Recent writings include auto/biographical considerations of the relationship between creativity and political activism (see for example http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/ppolitical-creativities-1-playing-with.html) and fictional representations of current political concerns (see here for a health related piece http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/no-room-at-infirmary-and-other-stories.html).
In reflecting on these ‘non-academic’ pieces which are of course informed by my sociological auto/biographical self I appreciate on the relationship, the slippage, between my passions and practices. One (other) good example of this being my concern to argue that, I think, the media can learn from social research(ers):
In my own academic writings I have tried to work towards a position that challenges traditional claims to objectivity and recognises the identity (personhood) of the researcher and the complex relationship between the researcher and those they research (which itself has an impact on the research process and its final product) and yet still enables useful things to be said. It has become commonplace for researchers to acknowledge the need to consider how the researcher as author is positioned in relation to the research process, not least with reference to the choice and design of the research fieldwork and analysis, editorship and presentation. Increasingly researchers accept that subjectivity and bias is inevitable and with this in mind I have argued that ‘. . .it is better to understand the complexities within research rather than to pretend that they can be controlled, and biased sources can themselves result in useful data’ (Letherby 2003: 71). It seems that journalism, or at least some journalists, are catching up. Jones suggests that there has been an increase in opinion journalism masquerading as objective reporting and Bastani argues:
There is nothing wrong with politically committed journalism, be it in comment or reportage, legacy media or new. The point is to be open and honest with one’s audience about those commitments.
Buroway, M. (2005) ‘For Public Sociology’ American Sociological Review 71(1)
Cotterill, P. and Letherby, G. (1993) ‘Weaving Stories: personal auto/biographies in feminist research’, Sociology, 27(1)
Letherby, G. (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University
Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20(2)
Smart, C. (2007) Personal Life: new directions in sociological thinking Cambridge: Polity.
Stanley, L. (1993) ‘On Auto/Biography in Sociology’ Sociology 27(1)
Tierney, W. (1998) ‘Life History’s History’ Qualitative Inquiry 4(1)